TCS Daily

Fields of Dreams

By Philip Stott - January 18, 2002 12:00 AM

If you have ever worried that environmentalists are genuinely thwarting progress in the field of agricultural biotechnology, then now may be the time to think again. In 2001, over 5 million farmers opted for the future rather than for a rose-tinted return to a never existing, "organic" past. From China to Canada, farm fields are waving with the three big 'Cs': biotech canola, corn and cotton. And biotech soybeans now cover a massive 33 million hectares of the good earth.

So much for biotech terrorism: try ripping out that lot.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) has just published its annual survey of biotech crops in commercial use for the year 2001, the "Global Review of Commercialized Transgenic Crops, 2001." The figures speak for themselves.

For the very first time, biotech crops cover over the magic 50 million hectares barrier with a total of 52.6 million hectares around the globe. This figure is up by almost 20% over the year 2000.

And this massive increase hasn't just been generated in North America. Important agricultural players -- including at least six developing countries - are using biotech crops today. China, for example, is tripling its farm area under Bt cotton and Indonesia is planting Bt cotton for the first time. In Latin America, Argentina is now second in the world in terms of agricultural land growing biotech crops, with 11.8 million hectares of its farm area under biotech products. Moreover, three quarters of the 5.5 million farmers involved were resource-poor rural folks.

Between 1996 and 2002, the cumulative world total of biotech crops covers a massive 175 million hectares, or, to put it in more old-fashioned terms, nearly 450 million acres.

Moreover, these figures concern only biotech crops that are currently in full commercial production. The statistics take no account of those biotech crops that are under scientific trials in countries ranging from Australia to Zimbabwe, Cuba to India. And they take no account of the seed that is smuggled across national boundaries by desperate farmers who want to grow new and improved crops. It has been frequently reported, for example, that there is a constant traffic of such seed from the biotech fields of Argentina into Brazil. This is happening despite the opposition of western environmental groups and certain opportunistic governments.

The current state of affairs represents an enormous global experiment. And during the whole time, there has not been one proven serious environmental or nutritional problem -- despite the constant hype, exaggerations, distortions, and apocalyptic visions suggesting otherwise. From cotton underpants that will give you gonorrhea to the demise of the Monarch butterfly, it has all been largely nonsense.

Indeed, the evidence is increasingly the opposite. The spread of new crops is resulting in a massive reduction in the use of herbicides and pesticides and no-till options are helping to control the loss of topsoil from erosion. And I will never forget listening to one old Missouri farmer when he told me, with tears in his eyes, how, as a child, he remembered having to spray crops up to 16 times with all sorts of nasty chemicals, and now he used one or two at the most. And the birds, he said, were returning to his fields.

Where is the biggest gap in all this exciting growth and development? It's in Europe, where Green vandalism has routinely put scientific trials at risk and where the Byzantine and labyrinthine complexity of European Union (EU) laws and politics has been employed by some member governments to slow down the adoption of the new crops, not to mention the import of these crops from the rest of the world. Only Spain stands out as a bold, if insignificant, small-scale commercial producer.

But while Europe may still be fighting the tides of history and scientific knowledge, 5.5 million real farmers from all round the world are moving another direction, bravely putting their money where their mouth is. From the statistics, it appears that down-to-earth common sense and rationality are winning the day.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (Arnold and OUP, 2000). Philip also hosts the AntiEcohype web site.

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